When the West Was Fun: A Western Reunion

whenthewestHalf or more of the fun in watching this 1979 TV special is seeing the actors entering the set—a Western saloon, of course, on some Hollywood backlot. Chuck Connors, James Drury, Guy Madison, Rex Allen, Jack Kelly, Doug McClure and dozens of others enter, including Clayton Moore in full Lone Ranger drag. Why he spends the entire show knocking back shots with bartender Larry Storch and a docile kittycat is anybody’s guess, but some have suggested that his breakup with Tonto and the custody battle over his horse Silver was even more painful than the tabloids reported.

Glenn Ford hosts the show, which means he does the bulk of the cue-card reading, while several spirited women in Can Can costumes dance a few time-devouring musical numbers.

The actors are tabled according to some kind of ranking system. Over at the villain table is Neville Brand, looking strangely like Buster Poindexter or Iggy Pop’s older pappy. Lee Van Cleef, John Ireland and Denver Pyle share Brand’s table. Off to the side is the Indian table where the native Italian Iron Eyes Cody and several others are no doubt considering the wisdom of their terrible wigs and career choices.

Gunsmokers Festus and Doc are on hand to resurrect a little ancient shtick at their table, but Marshal Dillon apparently had some varmints that needed chasing in Brentwood that afternoon.

Substantial actors at the event included John McIntire and Barry Sullivan, and a table of two sidekicks with Slim Pickens and Pat Buttram. For my money, they should have combined the villain and sidekick tables, given the lads a jug of brew and let the cameras roll. That would have been far more entertaining than watching Peter Brown show off his quickdraw.

Far more painful is watching a solo folk song, “A Cowboy in Shorts,” by the adult Johnny Crawford, dressed like a Hollywood motel rent boy. Honestly, I couldn’t look.

The capper is a campfire singalong with Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, the cast and the Sons of the Pioneers. I don’t know why Ken Curtis (Festus) was kept to the side, as he was a former Son as well—a terrific singer who took over once when Sinatra left Tommy Dorsey. Rex Allen should have been given a spot as well.

This low budget special is basically a handful of clips and a roomful of Western actors who received a little drinking dough and some craft service, basically folks who were cruising for a few hours of wardrobe and some no-sweat shooting. The quality of the DVD is pretty awful and the show is mediocre, but the faces and the memories they evoke are sheer grizzled ambrosia.

Too bad, really, that the idea wasn’t budgeted with a little more money and a lot more dignity. These days, a project of that sort would have made a crackerjack documentary with top production values, but as so many of these performers have long departed, that love boat has sailed.

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